National commander leads veterans walk in California

American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt led members of the Department of California Legion family on a chilly, yet enthusiastic, second annual Walk for Veterans in Sacramento, Calif., Dec. 16.

The walk kicked off with a wreath laying ceremony at the California State Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, located on the grounds of the Capitol Park. Department leadership and Legion family members from across the state walked with the national commander around the park to engage the community and raise awareness about the Legion and issues facing America’s veterans.

“This beautiful park and the beautiful memorials remind us of the service and sacrifices of the men and women, especially here from California, who have served our great country. We should walk not for ourselves but for those who have marched before us,” Schmidt said in regards to the awareness walks that Past National Commander Dale Barnett initiated last year. “In war or peace, America’s veterans have repeatedly sacrificed for our freedom. These awareness walks are the least that we can do for them.”

The Vietnam memorial that represented the start for the Walk for Veterans was dedicated in 1988 as a personal reflection of life during the war. The memorial is also a tribute to the 350,000 California men and women who served in Vietnam, and it includes the moving quote penned by Army Maj. Michael O’Donnell while he was serving in the war, "Take what they have left and what they have taught you with their dying and keep it your own. And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind."

The memorial has a series of rings that symbolize a circle of life. The outside ring is made up of 22 black granite panels engraved with the names of the 5,822 Californians who died in the war or are still missing. These heroes are remembered with their name, military branch and rank, hometown and age. The inner ring represents life during the conflict. It features four life-sized bronze statues: a pair of men in combat, two exhausted friends, a prisoner of war, and a nurse tending to a wounded soldier. This is said to be the first memorial to recognize the contributions of the 15,000 nurses who served in Vietnam. The center of the inner ring features a bronze statue depicting a 19-year-old combat soldier sitting on his helmet cradling an M16 rifle and reading a letter from home.

The monument is also a remembrance of the more than five million Californians who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since statehood in 1850.

”I just had a chance to look at the Vietnam memorial … what a great sacrifice of men and women from California alone. Let’s remember those who have served,” Schmidt said. “Last month I was in Vietnam and was briefed on those who have yet to come home. Let’s think about those who are not home yet.”

Visitors come to the memorial seeking the engraved name of a loved one or to reflect on a period in history when so many young soldiers lost their lives. Some leave photographs, poems or flowers for the fallen heroes.

“Today we are walking for those who have served, those who are serving, and certainly those who will serve our country in the future,” Schmidt said. “So let’s think about why we’re walking, who we’re walking for. And if we happen to come across some folks that are in this beautiful park wondering who we all are in these yellow shirts, let’s tell them that we are walking for veterans, the men and women who protect our country, and help us keep our freedom and democracy.”

Department of California National Executive Committeeman Janet Wilson said, “We’re walking for those who’ve marched for us to say thank you to those veterans that marched so proudly, some who gave their lives or limbs for America, and we’re just very, very, very proud to be out here today and bring awareness to the veterans that are still in need.”

Henry Sanchez, past commander of Post 233 in Elk Grove, Calif., said, “I think this walk was absolutely wonderful. Anytime I’m amongst my brother and sister veterans in our great organization, The American Legion, I’m at home. There is no place like home and The American Legion organization is something that I’m very proud of, very passionate about. I’m a proud lifetime member.

“(The Walk for Veterans) are all about awareness, all about membership, all about letting people know what we do in The American Legion. This is just one of a great many things we do, and I’m very proud to be a part of that.”

Pete Conaty, who has been lobbying for veterans for more than 30 years at the State Capitol following his 21 years of service in the U.S. Army, said, “It’s great that the commander comes out and sees the memorials here at the capitol and leads the walk. It’s a fantastic opportunity. I think it caps his visit to California.”

Conaty guided Schmidt on this walk and explained the history of the capitol and the different monuments, as well as provided a general background about the legislative work The American Legion Department of California does at the State Capitol. “We passed 18 bills this year to help out veterans. It’s an ongoing thing to make life better for veterans and our military in California.”

At the conclusion of the walk Schmidt reminded those gathered that The American Legion will not quit talking about veterans upon leaving the walk. “We need to constantly remind a grateful nation about those who have served our country. That message also needs to go to Capitol Hill,” he said. “Because sometimes they forget they represent a grateful nation, and hopefully they will do what a grateful nation would like to do for their heroes, those men and women who have served. Let’s also remind our friends on Capitol Hill that veterans are kind of special, and it’s not because we are veterans, but because of what our nation asked us to do, whether it’s in peace time or wartime. A grateful nation shouldn’t forget those who served.”

Sons of The American Legion Past Detachment of California Commander Michael Fox, Haggin Grant was among the Legion family who participated. “Walking for Veterans is about paying respect and honoring those who have served for the freedoms I enjoy, as well as getting our message outside the four walls of The American Legion,” Fox said. “Walking for Veterans is a reminder that so many men and women have fought, continue to fight, and will fight for our freedom. Thousands have paid the ultimate sacrifice for people they don't know. We must honor them as well as spread the good word of The American Legion at the same time.”

The goal for the awareness Walk for Veterans is to get Legion family members outside the post and carry the legacy forward by letting veterans and the community know how The American Legion supports veterans, servicemembers and their families.

“We belong to a great organization... let’s continue to take care of our buddies, that’s what The American Legion has always done since 1919,” Schmidt said. “We are going to continue to do that even after we celebrate 100 years, we’re going to continue to serve and pass the legacy on to the next generation.”